Local authorities need much more support to do their bit on climate

There is ongoing concern amongst local leaders and environmental organisations that local authorities are not receiving the support and resources they need to reduce emissions in their areas. Last Wednesday the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published its roadmap to show how government can meet its legally binding sixth carbon budget. Alongside this, a separate report was commissioned which emphasised the need for central government and local authorities to “work seamlessly” together to achieve their shared goal of net-zero emissions.

In the same week, the Blueprint Coalition, comprised of local government organisations, environmental NGOs and academics, called for urgent support for local authorities to decarbonise.

We added our voice, earlier this month, with The local climate challenge, expressing similar concerns. Hot on the heels of this flurry of publications, the net zero pledge from local authorities, convened by UK100, shows their desire to be given more powers to do more. So what is it that local authorities want and need?

Local climate action should be properly resourced
There is broad agreement across all these calls on one major area: that a rapid increase in local authority funding is needed to enable them to invest in decarbonisation and improve local skills to achieve it. Local authorities have faced severe budget cuts over the past decade, with council net spend per person 23 per cent lower than ten years ago. Covid-19 has piled even more pressure on resources, with staff and funds reallocated to support local people and businesses.

Despite many of them declaring a climate emergency, a lack of core funding means that, for less well resourced local authorities, comprehensive planning and delivery of local climate action is nearly impossible. Any money that has been offered by the government for this purpose has been irregular, meaning it is hard for councils to plan for the long term, or invest in sustainable projects. Funding is also often offered competitively through a bidding process which can be complex and time consuming and, with no guarantee of success, authorities with smaller teams will struggle to win funding.  

Equally important is the need for the government to support sufficient training to ensure “climate skills are embedded in all roles and that there is widespread access to specialist energy and retrofit skills”, as recommended by the CCC. A number of local authority representatives raised this as an area of significant concern during interviews we conducted for our report. “It would be much cheaper to have experts within the council than to be commissioning it from consultants”, one discussed, while another noted that neighbouring authorities didn’t have a “single sustainability post”.

The recent reports also agree that economy-wide local training programmes should fill the current skills gap in the green economy and help to reduce the damage which Covid-19 has inflicted on communities. Through the UK100 pledge, local leaders stressed the benefits which net zero will have for communities, bringing new skills and jobs. We also highlighted the opportunity of investment in green jobs for local communities; for example, retrofitting every home to EPC band C by 2030 is expected to sustain 108,000 new jobs annually, with economic benefits seen across the country. Regions hit hardest by the pandemic, with high levels of unemployment and fuel poverty, could particularly benefit. 

A new local and national partnership is needed
Although local authorities want to play their part in the effort to tackle climate change, central government has not been clear about their role. Along with the CCC, we recommend a central framework, developed by local and national leaders, which clearly delineates what local government needs to do and supports them in doing it will be essential in meeting the country’s net zero carbon goal. As one local authority representative said to us, “there needs to be a proper green agenda in my view, which actually gives incentive, gives money, gives targets, gives authorities the chance to be ambitious about things”.

This framework should provide a baseline for local authorities, regardless of how far they have got in mapping their area’s emissions and potential solutions. However, it should also be flexible in allowing councils to address climate change in the way that works for their region, and to go above and beyond in national ambitions.

Community needs should be at the centre
As we discuss in our report, local authorities’ relationship with local people, businesses and environments is unparalleled, and their soft influence over their communities is something central government should be making the most of. While direct emissions from councils’ own buildings and operations are minimal, as the CCC says, “more than half of emissions cuts needed [nationally] rely on people and businesses taking up low-carbon solutions – decisions that are made at a local and individual level”. Under the UK100 pledge, local leaders highlight that they have greater understanding of communities’ needs, allowing them to build consensus for the solutions needed for a just transition. The Blueprint Coalition flags the local authority role as an intermediary and facilitator, discussing electric vehicle charging points and heat pumps in social housing as key starting points.

Collaboration between central and local government should not be seen as a ‘nice to have’. As the CCC points out, “top-down policies go some way to delivering change, but can achieve a far greater impact if they are focused through local knowledge and networks”.

The government needs to see partnership with local authorities as essential to its net zero plan. This will be particularly pertinent in the coming year as it is due to publish a white paper on devolution and will also be creating momentum for climate action ahead of the UN talks at the end of 2021.

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